Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Your Classic Ghost Story

Halloween, right?  Ghost stories.  The Swallow, by Charis Cotter appears on Netgalley and I am attracted to the book--I'm thinking of the creepy Mary Downing Hahn books of my youth.

I didn't quite get what I expected, and I'm not sure if it's because I came to this as an adult and you can't go home again, or if this is a different type of book.  The defining quality of a ghost story, I suppose, is its atmosphere, and atmosphere is what you've got here, most definitely.  In my mind, there is fog in pretty much every scene in this book--possibly even the indoor ones.

Rose is a lonely, sad girl whose parents are rarely home and whose housekeeper dislikes her.  She is strange and quiet, and because she can see ghosts, she is often tense and scared. She feels invisible.

Polly lives next door with her enormous, boisterous family.  All she wants is some privacy, but her twin brothers, the Horrors, are always in her business, and now she shares her room with the new baby.  She loves to read, though--especially ghost stories.

When Polly and Rose discover they are neighbors, the girls form an odd friendship.  But Polly is suspicious of the solitary Rose--could she be a ghost?

The thing about this book is that it's old-fashioned.  It takes place in 1963 (in Toronto, and there's lots of geographic detail), but it reads like a book that was written in 1963.  I found the pacing quite slow, especially for a middle grade book.  Again, it's wonderfully atmospheric, but even one day after finishing, I can't really remember the trajectory of the story--just the two girls and their friendship and the ghost who bothers them, and the ending.

The friendship is especially lovely--I love that Rose isn't particularly interested in making a friend, but Polly's just so out there she hardly notices, and that wins Rose over.  (Could it be because this is the pattern in so many of my social interactions?)  I like how having this friend, this person who really sees her, gives Rose strength and pushes her out of her comfort zone and into what is eventually a much better place.

I will say that I guessed the ending, but I think that was mostly luck.  I tend to speculate, and when you're looking for confirmation of a "surprise" that you expect, you can often find it.  I think it was very well-presented, though--there is a real sense of uncertainty all the way through the book.

I wish I could figure out how kids would feel about this book.  I didn't find it as engaging as I wanted it to be, but I think I've reached a point where middle grade books have to be exceptional to make my hit list.  I think this was a good book for the kind of child reader who love old-fashioned books, like Anne of Green Gables and Betsy-Tacy.  It's much creepier than that, but the sense of place and time reminds me of that kind of classic--only with ghosts!

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